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Hibbert lives for the moment

A friend's ailment has taught the Georgetown center to play as if there's no tomorrow

March 25, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Part of what makes Roy Hibbert a good basketball player -- who's getting better by the day -- is the realization that, at any moment, something awful might happen.

"You never know," he said.

It is a coach's adage -- play every game as if it were your last -- but it means something more to the Georgetown center.

This afternoon, he will lead the Hoyas against North Carolina in the East Regional final with a Final Four spot on the line.

Hibbert figures to be a focal point if only because, at 7 feet 2, he has the size to attack a smaller Tar Heels front line. He also represents a success story, a young man who arrived in college as raw and awkward as they come.

Over the past three seasons, hard work has transformed him into a verified talent who can score 12 points and pull in seven rebounds a game.

"I just thank God every day that I am able to play," he said.

Hibbert pushes himself, in part, because of what happened to a friend.

The prospect, the project

When Hibbert met Davis Nwankwo in eighth grade, it made sense for the tall kids to become pals. They hung out at school and went to movies, spent nights at each other's houses.

"We couldn't fully fit into the sleeping bags," Nwankwo recalled.

Mostly, the teenagers from Maryland played basketball, heading to the gym every day after class.

"He was like a brother to me," Hibbert said. "We had a lot of fun back then."

After their senior year, after they had led Georgetown Prep to a conference championship, Nwankwo (pronounced "wank-wo") was courted by the likes of Arizona, Georgia Tech and Maryland.

Recruiters saw him as a polished prospect, a two-time all-county player who had worked diligently on his game. Hibbert was a different story.

Though he had averaged 19 points and 17 rebounds that season, he was rough, possessing the size but not the skills.

"Davis hit the weight room in high school," Hibbert said. "I wish I'd been right there with him, but I wasn't doing that too much."

Georgetown emeritus coach John Thompson Jr. dubbed Hibbert "the big stiff." The Hoyas took him on as a project.

Before heading off, Hibbert and Nwankwo talked about someday facing each other in the NCAA tournament. It was the sort of dream lots of kids have.

A sudden collapse

College ball progressed slowly for Nwankwo. He redshirted as a freshman in 2004-05 and came off the bench the next winter. Vanderbilt was grooming the 6-10 forward for a front-line spot.

Last March, the players gathered for morning practice, stretching, getting their ankles taped. Nwankwo recalls little of what happened next.

The team started into drills with trainer Mike Meyer watching on.

"I turned around to pick up a towel and heard him fall," Meyer said. "It was a sound that I can't describe but that I'll never forget."

The gravity of the situation was obvious, Meyer yelling for Coach Kevin Stallings to hustle the team back into the locker room.

Nwankwo's heart had stopped beating. The trainer rolled him onto his back and cut off his uniform as an assistant brought an automated external defibrillator.

The equipment delivered an electric jolt and Meyer followed with two rescue breaths. Nwankwo's heart started up again after 90 seconds.

"A miracle in itself," Meyer said. "The outcome could very easily have gone the other way."

Nwankwo regained consciousness, still on his back, an oxygen mask strapped to his face. Then came an ambulance ride to the hospital and days of medical tests.

"It all happened so fast," Nwankwo said. "It was too much to consume at that time."

Time to grow

So much changed in the course of two years.

Georgetown pushed Hibbert into the starting lineup in his freshman season, forcing him to learn on the job. He looked uncomfortable and overwhelmed.

Over time, however, he developed low-post moves. He also lost weight, adopting some of the discipline he had seen in his high school buddy.

"Conditioning is a big thing," he said.

As a sophomore, Hibbert averaged 11 points and led his team with seven rebounds a game. Suddenly, current Georgetown Coach John Thompson III was praising his work ethic and the great strides he had made.

The Hoyas were heading for the NCAA tournament when the phone rang.

"My high school coach gave me a call," Hibbert said. "Davis was in the hospital."

Hibbert dialed his friend's cell phone and got no answer. Days passed without word.

"I was wondering, was he going to be OK?" he recalled. "I was afraid."

They finally got in touch a week later, Hibbert relieved to hear Nwankwo's voice. But the news wasn't all good.

Playing through

The doctors say Nwankwo can do push-ups, so he cranks out as many as 200 a day. They say he can take a few shots in the gym and ride a stationary bike. But, because he has an enlarged heart, a previously undetected condition, he cannot run.

His basketball career is over.

"There are times I feel angry," he said. "I mean, who wouldn't?"

Much of the past year has been devoted to an ambitious double major in engineering science and economics. The Commodores have kept him on the roster.

During games, Nwankwo jots statistics on a clipboard, charting the action from the end of the bench. That's where he was Friday night when Vanderbilt played Georgetown in a regional semifinal.

Hibbert talked to him before tip-off, the usual chatter, nothing serious. But the Georgetown center acknowledges: "To see him not being able to play, it hurts me."

The game they dreamed about had turned out different, and it remains difficult for Hibbert to fathom.

So, as his team makes a run at the Final Four today, the Hoyas' man in the middle will try to carry on where his friend left off. He will try to play physical like Nwankwo used to.

Most of all, he will try.

david.wharton@latimes.com

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Online poll

There were 532 responses to our online poll: Who will win the East Regional?

*--* North Carolina 55.5%

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*--* Georgetown 44.5%

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